In the physical world, every piece of unwanted advertisement your postman delivers represents a carefully calculated decision by the sender. The cost of sending a catalog of, let’s say, pet-rock accessories, includes not only the cost of a stamp, but also the cost of printing, design, handling, etc. There is also the additional cost of purchasing the prospective buyer’s name from a mailing list that the vendor believes has a high correlation to pet rock owners, for example, The Rock Petters Quarterly. This cost certainly limits the amount of junk mail you receive. But, as any environmentally conscious consumer will attest as they stare aghast into their overflowing recycling bins, they still receive considerably more junk mail than they want. The same could be said for those groggy-eyed long distance telephone customers awoken by a "robot" promising cheaper rates at eight in the morning.
There lacks a critical cost component in the economic balance between the cost of direct marketing and the potential profits to the advertiser: the cost in time and annoyance to the customer. In an ideal world, each person would be able to set his or her "annoyance-price" in proportion to the actual expense in time and aggravation. Those who find the unsolicited calls or mail distracting would set the cost high; those lonely souls who are just happy to have something to read or someone to talk to, would set it low.
Implementing this "user-annoyance charge" for telephone and e-mail solicitation would not be difficult. Suppose that you could order a personal toll number for your home. (In the U.S., such a service would be a "900" number.) Anyone who calls such a number would know beforehand that they are going to be charged, say, $1 a call – a price set by you. Of course, you don’t want to charge your beloved friends or family, so you have the option of pressing the # key during the call which tells the telephone company not to impose the fee. Realistically, you would reverse this; since most people who call you are friends and family, the default would be not to charge unless you press the # key. The important feature is that anyone who calls would know ahead of time what the potential cost is. This would certainly make solicitors think twice before dialing.
The same 900 number concept would also be easy to implement in e-mail. The transfer of e-mail is controlled by a protocol that negotiates every transaction between the sender and the receiver called "SMTP", or for the nerd-acronym challenged, "Simple Mail Transfer Protocol." This protocol could have an additional feature: an advertised cost, and an escrowed payment.
The e-mail protocol would work as follows. Suppose Anne sets her account cost to $1. When her friend Bob sends her an e-mail for the first time, Bob sees a message that says: "Anne imposes a $1 fee for junk mail, do you want to send this mail? > No > Yes > Yes Always > Yes, As Long As It Is $1 Or Less". Bob chooses "Yes Always," certain that his friend Anne will never charge him, thus Bob avoids ever having to see this annoying message again. Meanwhile, an automated "mail-bot" advertising a 900 sex line initiates a transaction with Anne’s account. The robot has been programmed to skip people who charge over 30 cents and thus skips over Anne’s mailbox. Now, let’s suppose that a vendor of cameras, who obtained Anne’s name from a mailing list of photography enthusiasts, wants to send Anne an e-mail. They have programmed their mail-bot for a $2 limit since they believe that they have targeted their audience well. If Anne chooses to impose her $1 fee, she can do so. Of course, if she does, the camera vendor now has serious financial motivation to remove her from the list not only to save money the next time they run a marketing campaign, but also because it improves the quality, and thus the value, of that mailing list which can be resold to other vendors.
Wouldn’t everyone simply impose a $100 fee thus killing direct marketing? No – first of all, the information that does make it through one’s personal price filter is likely to be well targeted and therefore interesting to the receiver. Second, and more importantly, if someone gets unwanted advertising, they earn money for simply pressing the delete key! Who wouldn’t want to make a buck for just pressing the delete key? In fact, most people would happily press the delete key for a few measly cents! In the case of a telephone call, that price is likely to be higher, say $0.75, due to the higher annoyance factor. If they set their threshold too high, they will never have the joy of earning money for doing nothing because no one will ever send them junk mail. Thus, an economic balance will be found between electronic serenity and the joy of charging solicitors by simply hitting the delete key!
For telephones, the described billing system already exists, minus the # key option. There’s no reason telephone companies couldn’t implement this service immediately by introducing a range of new area codes, for example 901 for 10 cents a call, 902 for 20 cents, etc. In fact, they can make a healthy profit by charging their marketing-intolerant customers for the service. For e-mail the idea requires standardized and secure micro-transactions, which already exist, although they are still in their infancy.
Ultimately, implementing some sort of annoyance-charge system for e-mail and telephones would benefit both the consumer and the vendor. Obviously, the greater benefit is to the consumer – as it should be since they are the ones being harassed. But, this scheme benefits the vendors as well. The information about who accepted or declined charges for various products and services is invaluable marketing data, and it is much more accurate than any equivalent data today. The fee would also put the quasi-legal pyramid and sex schemes out of business thereby making legitimate electronic direct marketing respectable. Consumers can look forward to a day when they spend less time aggravated by obscene and misleading junk mail and more time making money with the new international craze: "Deleting for Dollars."